November 5, 2009

Matebele Ants by Garth Edwards of Selati

The onset of the wet season brings with it the emergence of termites from their winter hibernation. Their emergence brings about an increase in activity from Matabele Ants(Megaponera foetens), as the termite worker class are their favourite food. On a morning drive, under cool, cloudy conditions, we noticed a column of Matabeles strung across the road. "Stop!" shouted the tracker; too late as it turned out, and the student in the driving seat hung his head as the front wheels passed over the marching insects. I climbed out, grim-faced with disappointment and studied the carnage in the tyre tracks. The order of the column had disintegrated as they scattered to avoid the massive tyres and their angry stridulations filled the air. I apologised to the unhearing insects, saying:"Think of us as Elephant," and moved the dead and injured from the tracks, then called the students down from the vehicle to marvel at these female warriors.
I began to describe their life cycles, social structures and hunting techniques when one of the students noticed something out of the ordinary. Three major scouts(adult females) appeared to be attacking an antlion larva in its conical pit-trap. Heads facing down, they dug furiously in the soft sand, searching for the ambusher. Then, another student noticed that there was a Matabele Ant sunken into the hole; up to her neck in quicksand. A very brave antlion larva had succeeded in attacking and subduing one of the powerful, warlike black ants. Now, her sisters were trying to rescue her.

What? Were the sisters trying to effect a rescue? Or were they merely searching for the foreigner in the mix as a possible source of food?(The antlion, attached to their sister, would be vulnerable to attack.) Are we allowed to believe that they were consciously trying to assist their comrade? Are we permitted the anthropomorphic thought, that the three were trying to save the one? It is well known that Matabele Ants returning from a raid, will carry their dead back to their bivouac and assist their wounded on the way home. So why not, in this instance?
Eventually two of the scouts gave up and continued on the trail of their sisters, but one, more persistent than the rest, continued the rescue attempt. She dug furiously, circling her sister as the sand flew from under her feet, trying to save her from the maxillae of the antlion. She failed. Eventually, reluctantly, she moved off, then returned for another attempt, then moved off again, leaving her hapless sister struggling feebly, her waving antennae the only sign of life.
On the return journey to their bivouac they would pass by this way once again. I knew that the bodies of their dead would be collected. Would they, possibly the three, pause in remembrance of their fallen comrade? Or is that pushing it a bit too far . . .?
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